Welcome back to WoW! So, you've not played the game since some time in Wrath of the Lich King, right? All right, let's start at the top with the key lore changes you need to know. The Lich King is dead. A bunch of heroes got together to watch Tirion Fordring kill him. It was sad, and it became even sadder when Bolvar Fordragon stepped up to be the new Lich King.
Since then, basically, dragons have been going to nuts all over Azeroth. Deathwing went on this long flight across Azeroth, changing up zones and radically altering talents for every class. He also flapped his immense wing and littered new loot all over the place.
Of course, now that you're back to the game, you want to get up to speed right away. Here are the things you should make sure to hit along the way.
To level or not to level
The first decision you need to make is whether or not you're going to level up a brand new character or get your old character up to level 85. The difference is mostly about your goals. If you want to be raiding as soon as possible, then you'll probably want to push up your old character.
If on the other hand you want to enjoy everything Cataclysm has to offer, you're probably better off starting a new character. That's because Blizzard put an immense amount of effort and creativity into redesigning all the lower levels. This content probably represents your richest experience in Cataclysm. Sure, you can kill Deathwing now, but it helps to get some context to that adventure. Otherwise, you're just killing a dragon. And a little dragon killing is always fun -- but get the whole story, man.
Instances are much easier
Back in the day, we used to avoid dungeons like a plague when leveling. Since then, Blizzard has built in a super-convenient random Dungeon Finder. With the class changes, balance alterations, and otherwise updated mechanics, the Dungeon Finder makes leveling through instances much faster.
Quests are now located inside the dungeons. You don't have to track down all your quests before you do an instance; this alone makes hitting up dungeons worthwhile. When you consider the amount of gear and experience to be had in instances, it makes sense to hit them up while leveling.
Once zone at a time
Remember that phasing technology we thought was so cool in Wrath? This was the programming that allowed a zone to change around you while you were questing. It made the geography and story much more dynamic and engaging. It was cool.
Blizzard clearly had fun with phasing, so it used more in Cataclysm. A lot more. Phasing in Cataclysm is so thorough and pervasive that it's nearly impossible to level solely with a partner unless you're joined at the hip the entire time.
The stories in Cataclysm are much more linear. This makes for a full, rich story experience, but it gets in the way when you're just trying to level quickly. The best choice is to stick to one zone at a time. Don't try and jump between Uldum and Twilight Highlands at the same time; do one zone all the way through and finish it before moving on.
So, what's the stuff you want to make sure you don't miss? We touched on the subject already, but the new Cataclysm instances are absolutely fantastic. They're all brief, intense, and story-driven experiences that are unlike anything in previous expansions.
Deepholm itself is an amazing zone; it's one of my favorites in the game. Deepholm outlines the tensions between the Horde and Alliance without degenerating into a silly smash-face PvP fest. As well, it supports the otherworldly feeling of Cataclysm without quite turning into a cartoon parody.
Uldum is another fun zone with a lot of interesting quests. However, as Mat and Alex point out, not everything in Uldum turned out great. Check out Uldum for some adventurous fun, but be ready to take it all with a big grain of salt.
How's PvP now?
The PvP system has changed significantly. If you participate in the Arena, you now get your points every time you win instead of simply once a week. That makes gear accrual a little easier. Rated Battlegrounds also supply a competitive opportunity, but you don't hear about Rated Battlegrounds as much as you do Arena.
Overall, though, once you're actually inside a PvP theater, things are basically the same. A billion pets are around every corner, everyone and their sister bubbles at the slightest hint of provocation. Expect to see lots of crowd control.
More changes ahead
We're going to dig a little deeper into recent changes next week, when we bring up to speed those folks who'd quit at the beginning of Cataclysm itself.
Visit the WoW Rookie Guide for links to everything you need to get started as a new player, from how to control your character and camera angles when you're just starting out, to learning how to tank, getting up to speed for heroics and even how to win Tol Barad.